Collapse of the Soviet Union: History & Major Facts

After absolutely dominating large parts of the 20th century, the Soviet Union, the world’s largest communist state, dissolved in 1991. The collapse of the Soviet Union in effect brought an end to the 40-year-old Cold War that raged between Eastern communist bloc and the Western free market bloc. But have you ever wondered how and why the Soviet Union collapsed?

Delve right into the major reasons why a colossal state as the Soviet Union collapsed.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s announces the end of the Soviet Union

Mikhail Gorbachev became the general secretary of the Communist Party in March 1985.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was officially announced by then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in a speech on December 25, 1991. Gorbachev told his countrymen and countrywomen that a new era was dawning and that the Soviet Union had to evolve in order to keep up with times. That same day, the famous sickle and hammer Soviet flag was taken down, and its place the Russian Federation flag was flown above the Kremlin in Moscow.

Gorbachev tendered his resignation as president of the Soviet Union. The Central Committee was dissolved, and activities of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union were banned.

Boris Yeltsin, an advocate for democratization and free market economy, became president of the newly independent Russian state.

Causes of the death of the Soviet Union

The end of the Kremlin’s control over Soviet republics was caused by a number of things, including then-Soviet’s leader Gorbachev’s social, political and economic reforms. The demise was also caused by a weakened and scaled down Soviet Army. The center simply could not hold any longer, thereby resulting in a shocking collapse of the Union.

Below World History Edu explores the events that resulted in the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union’s economy compared to Western countries’

Following the end of WWII majority of European countries had their economies severely ruined. Western European countries acknowledged the problem and quickly set out to rebuild. They were aided by collaborating effectively with the United States. This trans-Atlantic alliance created one of the greatest economic recoveries in modern history.

Unlike the West, the Soviet Union continued to place immense priority of military goods over consumer goods. The Soviets wanted to show the world the superiority of Communist economic system.

Soviet leadership, especially under dictator Joseph Stalin, somehow believed that by having a strong military would keep the country stable and prosperous. Stalin’s time in power was an absolutely horrific period for the Soviet Union, as the economy wasn’t the only thing his people worried about. Stalin built built the Soviet Empire on terror, moral decadence and lies.

In as much as Stalin’s successors tried to keep the economy ticking, they simply could not get the desired economic outcomes. Year in, year out, the Soviet Union’s economy continued to lag behind its fiercest foe, the United States. The fact that the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in the late 1970s even compounded their already stagnating economic situation. Not only did the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan fail to achieve the desired political outcomes, the invasion severely depleted the whatever goodwill the USSR had at the time.

As at the late 1980s, the USSR had a per capita income that was about half that of the United States’. There was a huge gap between the USSR and the US in terms of productivity and output. The quality of quality of consumer goods and services was years behind the U.S. and its Western allies. The United States also outperformed the Soviets in terms of technological advancements, labor productivity, healthcare, housing, and agriculture. From the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s the USSR’s economy was between 50 and 57 percent of US economy.

In some years, long breadlines developed in the USSR, revealing the extent of the Soviet’s economic problems. It was clear that Communism and its centralize planning had failed the Soviets in every shape and form. Still, the headstrong Soviet leaders continued to pump in enormous amount of resources into military goods as a way of keeping up with the nuclear arms race with the United States.

The Soviets began to have a glimmer of hope following the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev to power in 1985. The Soviet leader promised to embark on a reforms in all areas of the society.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s sweeping reforms to revitalize the Soviet Union

Having taken the reins of power in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev was absolutely determined to roll out sweeping social, economic and political reforms that would prevent the Soviet Union from imploding on itself. For many decades, the behemoth of a communist state had been plagued by debilitating bureaucracy, state secrecy and oppression. The Soviet leader’s antidote to those problems were his policies of “restructuring” (perestroika) and “openness” (glasnost).

Gorbachev wanted to bring an end of the era of oppression by encouraging his countrymen and countrywomen to freely express their opinions. As a result, the Soviet leadership opened themselves up to scrutiny and criticism as people no longer had to dread being sent to prison or exiled.

Gorbachev’s reforms of the 1980s were aimed at changing the social, economic and political fabric of the Soviet Union. The Soviet leader hoped that those reforms would help keep the Union thriving and robust in a world that was fast changing.

Abandonment of planned economy in favor of a market economy

To sustain the open society that Gorbachev envisioned for the USSR, a myriad of reforms had to be carried out in some key institutions. First and foremost, the Soviet Union had to move away from an overly centralized or planned economy.

The Soviet leader, like many Soviets, had acknowledged that having the state have a strong say in the allocation of resources simply wasn’t working. Therefore, Gorbachev set out to introduce a kind of quasi-capitalist economy so as to catch up with the West, which quite frankly were miles ahead of the Soviet Union in every conceivable social and economic indicators.

The Soviet Union began decentralizing the decision-making process so as to reduce the crippling bureaucracy. All in all, the ultimate goal of Gorbachev’s reform programs was to see to the improvement of the well-being of people. For decades, the average Joe in the Soviet Union had grown very frustrated with communist system of government. The working class yearned for improved working conditions and remuneration. People had also grown fed up of the endemic corruption in the institutions.

Under Gorbachev, the Soviet Union held its first and free election, which ended up being dominated by the Communist Party. The authorities also relaxed its control on the press. By doing so, Gorbachev hoped those press freedom and the removal restrictions would encourage the young folks to play active part in the new multi-party political landscape of the USSR.

Gorbachev succeeded in getting those reforms rolled out alright; however, he, and quite frankly many of the Soviet top brass, did not see those reforms causing the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev’s vision was to have a Soviet economy that was a mix between capitalism and communism. Unfortunately, those economic liberalization policies ended up being one of the straws that broke the Soviet Union’s back.

Mounting distrust of the Communist Party following the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster

Just a year into Gorbachev’s secretary generalship, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster struck. On that faithful day in April 1986 the nuclear reactor at the nuclear power plant in Pripyat (in what is today Ukraine) malfunctioned. The explosion at the site would release what experts maintain was about 400 times the amount of radiation that the Hiroshima atomic bomb in the 1940s produced.

Pripyat became a Soviet ghost town as mass evacuation began on April 27, 1986. The Chernobyl nuclear incident was a colossal disaster which highlighted the level of incompetence and negligence that went on in most sectors of the Soviet society for many decades. The authority’s response to the crisis did not inspire the greatest of confidence among the people.

Much to the annoyance of the people, the leaders remained tight-lipped about the true extent of the explosion and its effect not just on the town of Pripyat but the rest of Eastern Europe and the Black Sea area. The cover-up came right from the top and trickled down to the local level.

As usual, the Soviets instead of taking responsibility for the power plant explosion blamed the West. It’s safe to say that the people had grown tired of their government constantly pointing figures at the West.

No amount of coverups and propaganda by the Communist Party could stave off the outrage that was felt among the people. The effects of radiation poisoning was obvious to see in the affected areas.

When analyzing the collapse the fall of the Soviet Union, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident definitely cannot be overemphasized. Gorbachev himself would state later that it wasn’t out of place to attribute the end of the Soviet Union to the Chernobyl nuclear incident.

The Soviet Union was a federal union of 15 national republics. Governance and management of the economy were highly centralized affair. Covering more than 22 million square kilometers (8.6 million square miles), the Soviet Union was by far the largest country in the world.

The rise of nationalists and separatist independence movements

Saying that the Soviet Union was large will be an understatement considering the fact that it covered an area of about 22.4 million square kilometer (8.6 million square miles). At such mindboggling size, it beats the imagination how the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was able to hold things together for decades. It spanned two continents, stretching from central Asia to the doorstep of Western Europe. It was an absolutely diverse region as it comprised people of different ethnicities, religions, and cultures.

As expected, the Soviet Union over time struggled in overseeing the affairs of 15 separate constitutional republics. Beginning around the mid-1980s, problems started emerging in outer regions of the Soviet Union, especially in its Eastern European satellite states.

Having been oppressed and discriminated against for many decades, ethnic minorities began taking full advantage of the democratic reforms that were introduced by Gorbachev in the mid-1980s. They made sure that their voice, which was once silenced by Moscow, was heard throughout the Union and beyond. Soon separatist independence movements sprouted from those ethnic minority groups.

Moscow also had to contend with the rise of nationalist movements in places like Yugoslavia, Poland and Czechoslovakia. In short, the rise those groups to power in those Soviet satellite nations posed a threat to Moscow, which at the time underestimated the severity of the situation.

Gorbachev’s noninterventionist policy

The thing about having a centralized economy the size of the USSR is that it is very difficult to govern effectively. The Soviet Union was so large that the core became unstable over time and thereafter collapsed inward upon itself. This caused the Union’s outer satellite republics to be blown away, so to speak. During Gorbachev’s time in office, Moscow began scaling down its troops presence in its various satellite republics.

End of the Soviet-Afghan War

Two years after agreeing to eliminate ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers, Gorbachev ended his country’s invasion of Afghanistan.

Aside from the casualties (more than 16,000) suffered by the Soviet Army, the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1989) depleted the coffers of the country. The war had been a complete disaster for the USSR militarily and politically.

The war casts doubts on the military capabilities of the Red Army to effectively protect USSR’s regional interests. In other words, the defeat of Red Army by the Afghans emboldened nationalists and separatists in the outer parts of the Soviet Union.

Restructuring of the Red Army

At some point in time, leaders of the Soviet Union realized that the amount of money spent on its Red Army was simply unsustainable. Moscow had for many decades invested heavily in military goods over consumer goods.

As part of his economic liberalization policies, Gorbachev ordered the scaling down of Soviet troops to a more manageable level. This was also necessitated by the political and military fallouts from the Soviet-Afghan War.

It had become clear as day that the Red Army wasn’t the invincible army that it thought itself to be. Moscow therefore hoped to restructure the Soviet military to make it more effective.

Due to military budget cuts and scale down of troops, Moscow did not have the appetite or political will to quell pro-democracy and anti-communists protests and movements within the Soviet Union.

The INF Treaty in 1987

Ronald Reagan and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 1987

Gorbachev’s pursuit of noninterventionist policies as a means of reviving the ailing economy ended up fast tracking the death of the Soviet Union. By signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with the United States in 1987, Gorbachev was communicating his desire to build better ties with the West. Unfortunately for the Soviet Union, those sorts of foreign policy compromises instead ended up weakening it.

Did you know: The INF Treaty was one of the treaties that brought an end to the more than two-decade arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States?

The fall of the Berlin Wall

Those anti-Communist movements successfully removed many communist leaders from power in Lithuania, Poland, East Germany and Czechoslovakia. Image: The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989

Built in the early 1960s, the Berlin Wall symbolized the sharp divide that existed between the West and the East. For more than two decades, the wall separated democratic West Germany from the communist East Germany. The lives of many Germans were upended as families got separated by the heavily fortified barricade that ran through Berlin.

As the West ramped up its anti-communist policies not just in Europe but across the world, the Soviet Union began to buckle under the pressure. Then U.S. President Ronald Reagan even termed the USSR as an “evil empire”. The U.S. and its allies tried as much as possible to isolate the Soviets so as to force them into lifting the so-called Iron Curtain it had used to divide Europe, particularly Germany.

Protests against the Berlin Wall also took place within the Soviet Union. Finally, in 1989, the Berlin Wall came crumbling down as the communist leadership of East Germany simply could not fend off the pressure. Germany was reunited; however, the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse.

End of the Cold War

The Warsaw Pact was an alliance of Communists states formed to act as a counterweight to NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), a trans-Atlantic alliance led by the United States.

The collapse of the Soviet Union marked the end of the Cold War. For close to half a century, the U.S.-led Western bloc locked horns with the Soviet Union-led Eastern bloc (i.e. the Warsaw Pact) for global dominance. The Cold War, as it came to be called, precariously pushed the world to brink of nightmarish nuclear war, especially during the Cuban Missile Crisis of the early 1960s.

Read More: Notable Achievements of U.S. President John F. Kennedy

With the Soviet Union gone, the United States earned the sole global superpower. Gone were the days of two superpowers wrestling for global dominance. The U.S. became the only sheriff in town so to speak.

In other words, the disintegration of the Soviet Empire marked the end of the Cold War.

Soviet Union: Fast Facts

The end of the Kremlin’s control over Eastern European countries inspired other puppet republics in the USSR to fight for independence. Gorbachev could not bring himself to using violent and oppressive tactics in those republics. In 1991, the USSR broke into one giant Russia and fourteen smaller but independent states.

Lifespan: 1922 to 1991

Governance: One-party state – the Communist Party of the Soviet Union

First leader: Vladimir Lenin

Last leader: Mikhail Gorbachev

Capital: Moscow (in present day Russian Federation)

Other famous cities – Leningrad, Kiev, Minsk, Novosibirsk, Tashkent

Republics within the USSR – Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Armenia, Moldova, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Moldova

Motto: “Workers of the world, unite!”

What became of the the former Soviet satellite republics?

Starting in the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union witnessed huge a reversal of its fortunes as anti-Communists movements increased. Soviet satellite States like Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus had grown fed up of the decades of Russification in the Soviet Union. Large sections of the population in its Eastern European republics wanted the communist parties removed from power.

On December 8, 1991, leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus agreed to dissolve the USSR. Leading the calls for the dissolution was Russia’s Boris Yetsin. Then on December 21, other Soviet satellite republics agreed to join those three republics in severing their ties to the Communist Party.

Although an interstate agreement was signed between the former Soviet republics, many of them decided to go in different directions. For example, the Baltic republics would end up joining the US-led NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and the EU (European Union). Similarly, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova sought closer ties with Europe by signing association agreement with the EU.

On the other hand, the likes of Belarus and many Central Asian states ended up aligning themselves to a Russia-led Eurasian economic and political bloc.

Size of the USSR’s economy before the dissolution

The truth of the matter is the USSR’s economy was not doing badly in the years leading to collapse. With an economy almost $3 trillion in size as of the late 1980s, the Soviets had the 2nd biggest economy in the world at the time, behind the United States. Its per capita was around 9,000 dollars, the 28th in the world. It was the changes in the perception and evaluation of the Soviet Union’s government’s performance that caused a lot of upheaval in those Soviet republics.

Other notable facts about the collapse of the USSR

Following the end of the Soviet Union, a total of 15 independent republics emerged.

Here are few more important facts about the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991:

  • One of the reasons why the Soviet Union collapsed was that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union could not silence the voice of large sections of the population in Soviet puppet republics, especially those in Eastern Europe.
  • Lithuania was the first republic in the Soviet Union to declare independence. With a resounding unity shown by Lithuanians in the capital Vilnius, the country freed itself from more than fifty years of Soviet rule on March 11, 1990.
  • Openness and democratization served as the foundation of perestroika, a reform that Soviet leader Gorbachev strongly pushed for.
  • Decades of Stalin’s rule saw the Soviet Union built on lies and corruption. As a result, successive leaders of the USSR had to contend with a very morally bankrupt system of government. Gorbachev sought to make what some termed as a rotten society anew.
  • It was often the case that the Russian majority in the Soviet Union looked down on ethnic minorities. Decades of this practice created animosity between Moscow and the outer regions of the USSR. This resulted in the growth of nationalist and independence movements in those areas, especially in Soviet satellites states in Eastern Europe.
  • Modern Russia’s longest serving leader, Vladimir Putin, is known for having strong Soviet nostalgia. Putin once described the dissolution of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” As a result, Putin’s more than two decades in charge of Russia has seen attempts made towards Russification of the region.

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